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World Beaters: Lebanon High Team Wins Destination Imagination Global Finals

Destination Imagination teammates Gavin Morgan of Grantham, Gergana Alteva, of Grantham, Julia Blike, of Grantham, and Ethan Ticehurst, of Lebanon, talk about their winning experience at the global finals. They gathered in Principal Nan Parsons’ office at Lebanon High School last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Destination Imagination teammates Gavin Morgan of Grantham, Gergana Alteva, of Grantham, Julia Blike, of Grantham, and Ethan Ticehurst, of Lebanon, talk about their winning experience at the global finals. They gathered in Principal Nan Parsons’ office at Lebanon High School last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Upper Valley youth teams often go to and win state title games, and a few others might go all the way to a national competition. But only a very few (moguls skier Hannah Kearney of Norwich comes to mind) conquer the globe.

That’s exactly what a group of five Lebanon High School students did a little over a week ago when they topped the field at the annual Destination Imagination global finals. Competing in improvisational theater and storytelling in Knoxville, Tenn., the team bested students from around the world.

If their win means anything, the students said, they hope it brings greater recognition and support in Lebanon for Destination Imagination, a series of academic-skill-based contests that its devotees call DI.

“We explain that it’s about creative problem-solving,” said Gergana Alteva, a 17-year-old junior. But what their Central New Hampshire Improv Troupe does isn’t easy to explain. “You have to see it. You have to be involved in it,” she said.

DI was founded in 1999 when it took over the charter of Odyssey of the Mind, a similar organization that became a for-profit company. Its contests for elementary, middle and high school students are structured around seven challenges that fall under the headings Technical, Scientific, Fine Arts, Improvisational, Structural and Service Learning, as well as a non-competitive Early Learning Challenge.

The aim is to encourage students to work together to develop solutions to the challenges at hand. DI is meant to immerse participants in the creative process and give them experience in the arts and the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math). Although it’s an American program, DI currently has around 125,000 participants around the world.

Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons has served as a DI coach, and helped coach the victorious improv troupe. In a way, the program runs counter to how a school works, with its constant assessments.

“Where else are kids not fed information directly and then asked to spit it back to us?” Parsons said. “What you’re really doing is shaping thinkers,” she added. Coaches are allowed to ask students questions, but can’t tell students what to do.

For the improv challenge, the students are given a dramatic element, some props, one of five communication methods and three nouns, and they have five minutes to prepare an improvised five-minute performance. At the global finals, the dramatic change was that dentists were no longer allowed to use painkillers, which Central New Hampshire Improv Troupe had to communicate in verse. For props they had eight white T-shirts of different sizes, and markers. The three nouns, from which they were required to craft a slogan, were “gargoyle,” “horizon” and “pavement.”

“We decided to be liberal with our interpretation of poetry,” said Geoffrey Blike, a senior and the team’s “leader emeritus” and clown prince. They rapped their story of a king who liked to go to the dentist every week, the evil wizard who cast a spell against the king and two knights who confront the wizard.

Each team also has to face an “instant challenge,” which this year required them to build a simple machine out of commonplace objects that could move rocks over a bridge and avoid obstacles.

Of the teammates, Blike and Gavin Morgan felt they had a chance to do well in Knoxville, to finish in the top 10. Alteva, Julia Blike, a sophomore and Geoffrey’s sister, and Ethan Ticehurst, a junior, were less confident.

In one respect, the team’s win wasn’t a complete surprise: This year marked their fifth straight trip to Knoxville. They were old hands, as was their manager, George Blike, Geoffrey and Julia’s father.

Four of the five teammates are from Grantham — Ticehurst is from West Lebanon — and got their start in DI at Grantham Village School. Parsons got that program running when she was a teacher there, and it remains a robust presence at the school.

“We walk into that school and they know us,” Morgan, a junior, said.

The tall trophy that the team won could be destined for the Grantham school’s trophy case, team members said, where hopefully it will inspire the next generation.

DI hasn’t been a consistent presence in Lebanon schools, and the program currently doesn’t have much traction. It takes a lot of time and effort to coordinate a team.

“I coached up until I became principal here,” Parsons said. Being a high school principal doesn’t leave her with enough time to coach.

“It takes a core person to lead it,” she said.

“There hasn’t been a huge effort to recruit more people,” Julia Blike said.

While DI has been a sanctioned club at Lebanon High School, that’s been an on-again, off-again arrangement, and there’s no financial backing from the school. The Hanover-based Byrne Foundation has partially funded the trips to Knoxville.

At Grantham, the future of the DI program seems secure: Elementary, middle and high school teams from Grantham all placed first in the regional DI improv contest this year, said Rebecca Johnson, mother of Geoffrey and Julia Blike. Teachers at Grantham Village School have taken ownership of DI, Johnson said.

The members of the victorious high school improv troupe seemed pleased but unimpressed with their global finals victory. In talking about how hard they practiced and how few people understand the competition, Geoffrey Blike broke in with an unequivocal statement that put the subject to rest.

“We’re the best in the world, guys.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.


Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons was a teacher at Grantham Village School in the 1990s. Her role at the school was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.